Oscars 2021: Why Nomadland should not win the Best Picture (but most certainly will)

It’s that time of the year again: predictions are called, bets are made and politically correct acceptance speeches written. There are also statues, but gold is the least everyone cares about. You can feel it in the air, can’t you? (or is it deadlines?) Say it with us: The Oscars!

Single word at the back of everyone’s head whenever we see Leo’s million-dollar smile on a big screen. Witness godly craftsmanship of Alejandro González Iñárritu. Or see tears so genuine that you can almost taste the salty wetness on your lips. This is the only award ceremony a year, where cinephiles like myself are set loose to rant and put their unproductive knowledge, usually reserved for Friday night pub quizzes at the Southbank Bar, to test for this cinematic fantasy football we call Academy Awards.

Ah, the Oscars… Like every year, contenders for the holy grail Best Picture award are lined up and pointed out months in advance. This is part of the deal, of course. But Oscar ceremony has become so formulaic that spotting out the future trophy holders is no more challenging than predicting the next big couple on Love Island.

So, having been able to finally cast my peepers on Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s heavyweight film that has been buzzing from festival to festival, nonchalantly collecting “best film of the year” reviews, Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards – before it premieres in the UK next month, it’s my duty to join the rant about just how terrifically good Nomadland is. Why it will win the Best Picture. And why it should not.

Nomadland – Zhao’s third picture – feels like a breath of fresh for many reasons. Being stuck indoors for what now feels like eternity, this love letter to the American West puts us in a passenger seat next to modern-day “nomad”, or “rubber-tramp”, played by remarkably talented and versatile Frances McDormand, who in 2018, received her second Academy Award for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

There’s one particular scene where she’s about to snap (or crumble along with her favorite set of china) and I wish there wasn’t an option to stop the film – the moment is no less awkward and terrifying than standing in front of your mum, after dropping out of uni. Or confronting your past – exactly what Nomadland’s protagonist, forced out of the industrial haven (now a ghost town), sets out not to do, seeking refuge in like-minded communities and her van.

But Nomadland’s universal appeal lies in film’s core-message, not the illusion of freedom the filmmaker presents. Quite opposite, really. As we drive-along through the ruins of the American Dream and hear heartbreaking stories from real-life nomads (“I went online to look at my social security benefits. It said, ‘$550’. I worked since I was 12… I couldn’t believe it,” shares one of them), abandoned by the same Dream, it becomes clear that you cannot run away from sprawling industrialization that only cares about making more bucks. Seeing the backdrop of Mount Rushmore being swapped by shots of colossal, soulless exterior of Amazon’s imposing factory is nothing less than concerning, no matter where you live.


Greatest feat of Nomadland, however, is that it doesn’t directly point fingers – the overlapping contrast between nature and steel beams doesn’t feel manipulative. It doesn’t tell us how one should feel during (or after) this vagabond odyssey through tamed, yet still beating West (which reminds me to tell you to watch Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, a Huckleberry Finn’s Huck and Jim meets Nomadland’s encroaching industrialisation).

So, as a big-hearted drama that is Nomadland – reminding me of joys and terror of one of my personal favorite films, Into the Wild, and one of the least, Oscar-baitey Wild with Reese Witherspoon, which is basically cut from the same cloth as Zhao’s story – with many families affected by waves of unemployment and/or loss of loved ones, most of us reminiscing about the life before the “C-day”, I won’t be surprised if Nomadland will go into cinema’s history as the 93rd Best Picture.

Despite being promoted as the bee’s knees of this weird and theatre-less season (god, we miss cinema so much), there are plenty of obvious signs suggesting Nomadland’s winning homerun. Of course, these numbers are usually a hit-and-miss case, as Shape of Water, Parasite or “The Italian Stallion’s” Rocky proved, stealing that sweet gold from Marty’s grim masterpiece Taxi Driver.

According to Insider, “a whopping 93% (now 92%, since Parasite) of Best Picture winners are dramas, while only 2% are action and fantasy.” Again, Guillermo del Toro’s modern fairy-tale Shape of Water was an unexpected wildcard. But even that has an explanation (more information on that can be found here). So, as a no-bullshit drama of our modern-times, Nomadland checks this box. Is it a “socially relevant” one? Check that box twice, please.

Believe it or not, even the length of the film matters. Parasite and Green Book were over 2 hours, Shape of Water as well. It’s a silly measurement, yes. But only three Best pictures had a runtime below 100 minutes, with Nomadland being short just 10 minutes from entering swooping 76% of all previous winners with a 2h+ runtime. With our shrinking attention span in mind, I don’t think the Academy will even notice it. At least, it didn’t stop Moonlight or the rest of 27 pictures from taking it home.

There are also critics’ and audience’s ratings (the Academy loves commercially successful movies, with overly complex, niche ones not standing a chance). Familiarity with talented faces, around 71% of them – actors or filmmakers – being nominated at least once before (make it six for Leo). Or being supported by a major film studio (Nomadland’s Searchlight Pictures is not part of ‘the big six’, but with The Shape of Water and 12 Years a Slave in the bag, Chloé Zhao’s picture just as well could be studio’s ticket to immortality).

But all of this is beside the point.

There was a time when staying up overnight just to see the banter online (all the #OscarsSoWhite hashtags, memes), punching the air to (somehow) increase the chances of your favorite film being selected by time-worn Academy members. Give me the suspense, the “wrong envelope, oopps, sorry!” confusions. Give me Rocky, the ultimate underdog story – both cinematically and real-life – jabbing its way to the top.

And while there are occasional surprises, the Oscars love important movies, hopeful ones and timely, almost to a fault. That’s why there’s no chance for David Fincher’s love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood, Mank. No chance for Minari, my personal crème de la crème of this season, which is finally coming to your screens next month. Sound of Metal? More like Sound of no Best Picture.


The only possible contender for this year’s Best Picture is Judas and the Black Messiah, which made it to the list due to Oscar’s postponement. And for obvious reasons (recent BLM events) and not so obvious ones (simply a great, powerful like a revolution), it might as well follow in Moonlight’s victorious footsteps. Although, my money is still on Nomadland – however safe, boring and predictable this choice may be.

For the weirdest year for cinema (and the best one for Netflix), I suggest that the Academy Awards should embrace the great unexpected. Reward not the most important, serious, and perfect piece of art, but one that will remind us, year after year, how nonsensical, almost comically absurd, this season was. Give it to Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, for it is the only film that perfectly encapsulates how silly time has become since we entered in and out, in and out of lockdown. Heck, give it to Rocky (again) – great art can be rewarded twice. The Godfather films (first two) are a testament of that. Give it to someone who managed to capture the mise-en-scène of this trainwreck of a year that has left many of us defeated.

When you’ll be watching Chloé Zhao’s acceptance speech for Best Picture (it’s going to be about poverty in America and hope, mark my words) 3:30 in the morning, on April 26, thanking Frances McDormand (“I could not have done it without you!”) and her parents, squeezing that sweet, sweet 24-karat gold, remember: I’ve told you so.

Nomadland is coming out in the UK on 9 April.

By Ignas Vieversys

Feature image: YouTube

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